“Lost” Historic Black Cemetery Discovered Beneath Tampa, Florida Apartment Complex


This image is a 3D laser scan of Robles Park Village showing grave-shaped objects beneath the ground that align with historical maps of the former Zion Cemetery. (Cardno)

The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that more than 120 people buried in a historic Black cemetery have been discovered on the grounds of an apartment complex in Tampa, Florida. Zion Cemetery, believed to be the first in the city for African Americans, was established in 1901 by a Black businessman named Richard Dolby. Today, the Tampa Bay Housing Authority partially owns the two-and-a-half acres of land, where imaging technology recently revealed human remains are still buried.

For many decades, the question of what happened to Zion Cemetery was met with apathy. According to the Times, the discovery of three caskets made news in November 1951 during the construction of the Robles Park apartments, where initially only white people were allowed to live.

At that time, the City of Tampa told reporters that the cemetery had been relocated in 1925 to make way for white developments — but doubts lingered. Vice President of the Robles Park Village Tenant Council Clark Simmons told the Times, “People have said for years that we were built on a cemetery … I first heard about it around 1978 from my grandmother. But no one has ever done anything.”

The Zion Cemetery is one of numerous examples of undocumented Black burial sites across the country.

Forbes reported that in the past year alone, archaeological testing uncovered the remains of a 19th century African American burial ground in Philadelphia; construction crews in Fort Bend County, Texas, encountered nearly 100 unmarked graves of Black incarcerated people believed to have been leased to work in sugar fields as part of the system of convict leasing; and archaeologists working for the Maryland Department of Transportation discovered an enslaved community’s cemetery in Crownsville, Maryland.

These examples reveal how little has been done to preserve and protect important spaces and structures of African American history.

In June, the Times published a special report about the forgotten Zion cemetery, prompting the Housing Authority to hire archaeologist Eric Prendergast to investigate further. Mr. Prendergast used ground-penetrating radar to uncover the graves, finding “[r]eflections of rectangular objects that are the size and shape of coffins between four and six feet in depth.” He added that “[t]he reflections are arranged in rows and oriented east-west within boundaries of a former cemetery.”

In the wake of communities discovering the remains of African American life and history, several groups from around the country have advocated for new legislation to help preserve Black burial grounds. Earlier this year, lawmakers from Virginia and North Carolina introduced the African American Burial Grounds Network Act (HR 1179). This pending bill is intended to help identify local burial sites and preserve Black history, while informing development decisions and community planning. The United States Department of the Interior opposes this legislation.